Listening to Neighbours in the Spirit

Br Chris Dyczek OFM further reflects on the Pandemic Crisis.

The weekly clapping for carers and the NHS nurse and doctors, which many across Britain have experienced in the lockdown process could be described as a valuable opportunity to speak to our neighbours. Actual clapping might just last ten minutes, but this extends for some of us afterwards into as much as an hour of chatting with neighbours who perhaps we have hardly known about before. Perhaps it would be better to call this 'listening to neighbours' rather than speaking. New incursions into friendliness do not amount to a new reality unless those new faces realise during the chat that we are genuinely also listening, not just delivering a monologue about our fears or frustration. If we can let it be seen that we are getting to know them, and are pleased about that, there will be too little empathy and rapport taking shape. It takes a small gift of humility and of courage to hold back some of the strong emotions we have been bottling up all week, purely out of a generous impulse to act as healers of the distress or discomfort of others rather than our own. This is the kind of inter-personal 'knowledge' which Scripture and Christian counselling have named as a gift of 'knowledge'. It sits alongside 'understanding' and 'wisdom' in the list of helps which we are told can reach us when we are open to the Holy Spirit. Australian teacher Evelyn Woodward, in her book Poets, Prophets and Pragmatists (London: Collins, 1987) has in mind this concern with the quality of mutual understanding. She calls it 'empathy' and explains this at some length. The story of the first Pentecost which we read at Acts 2:1-42) expresses amazement that the Galilaeans, the followers of Jesus, were speaking in their typical manner, yet it had to be asked: "And how is it that we hear, each one of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs, we hear them telling each in their own tongues the mighty works of God." For myself, growing up in an immigrant street in Reading, this is very recognizable. We had people from Pakistan and Yugoslavia, from Trinidad and Grenada, Poles and Germans and Gypsies. Steel bands played their music in the next street along, and Tamla Motown and reggae music from late night parties sounded through our bedroom walls. My father often sat out on the front step for an hour to encounter whatever neighbours might walk past.

English people in some parts of the country might have a similar experience, but others have little direct engagement with this cultural pluralism and may find it tricky to handle. This tells us something about the need for courage to accompany our empathy. Willingness to listen, even when the stories being told are a bit unfamiliar and seem to be complex, is an essential act of kindness, which Christians often have to learn by a steady commitment to welcoming and loving strangers. Elaine Woodward sets out how we limit our hospitality by avoiding 'largeness of heart'. We retreat into 'exclusive friendships' and avoid strong feelings. We express only bland and superficial feelings, as if we had never found in life any basis for a deeper level of reality. But depending on the character of our company we may do the reverse, talking up how competitive and successful we have been. We might dull our sensitivity to the needs of another, offering a few stock topics in a pretence of sharing: topics which act as an anaesthetic that puts to sleep any areas of real concern. Instead of regarding all humanity as brothers and sisters, we may set up a tough little hedge of privacy. There can be language difficulties, of course, but patience and a reassuring smile can go a long way towards achieving that reconciliation between 'Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, men and women' which St. Paul taught was at the heart of the action of the Spirit brought into the world by Jesus Christ. If we seek to be well adjusted to the call from God, that would make us reconcilers in situations of tension, we have found the beginning of a creative mission. It is one that Jesus referred to as being 'peacemakers'.

For many of us, this has been the character of our lives as we left home and went into college, or an apprenticeship, or some short-term zero hours source of a small income. This is a time when we have to live with insecurity, which looks likely to become a more frequent experience now, with poorer range of job opportunities after Covid-19 gets weaker. Showing respect and a caring toleration of differences can be more of a challenge when we have not ourselves found a steady foothold in society. When I went to college, we lived in a corridor of eight or nine complete strangers, most of whom had learned fast to make themselves invisible, or spoke only when there was a problem to face, such as a fire alarm going off. Some are fortunate, finding perhaps a shared house, something like a real home for a while, as students. This lively group may be dominated by those who see themselves as talented in ways that guarantee a good future. Christian faith would ask them to open doors of friendliness to their young and puzzled neighbours. We live in a brittle society. The need for a community capable of compassion and sensitivity is great. We must keep that need in focus, and each play whatever part we can in unfolding a better rapport between the many alien faces all around us.

A lack of clarity about how much trust, dialogue and inter-subjective delight we can share is another heaviness settling upon many hearts and minds now. Parents who themselves have jobs and roles as nurses, doctors and teachers must decide whether it is too soon yet to let their children go back into the rough and tumble of a school environment. Talking this over is important. The invisible character of the risks hovering around us means that we must have a patient honesty about facing the unknown, plus a careful sorting out of whatever details have become known. A balance is important. Often the details need to be thought through, be summed up helpfully, and be spoken accurately. I have had several phone message conversations about this. Sometimes we have to encourage a degree of self-protective realism, to avoid a rush into patterns of activity which can be harmful to those who are crucial to a whole household. If these crucial parents grow severely sick suddenly, all sorts of fears and panics might bubble up. Offering sensible insights, caution relating to when a decision can and should be put off, these too are ways of expressing tactful empathy. Encouraging people who have a right to some medical support and testing is an aspect of how we make our concern serve as a living reality. We may then become ourselves, all unawares, into the recognisable builders of community. What is our call, vocation, or gift from God, in settings where community strengths have broken up?

I would not expect a very constructive response to this challenge from the young adults who were studying philosophy alongside me in my college days. There was among them a vagueness that would be, if anything, harmful to mental health. With present uncertainties, the idea of strong solidarity that is also community-building feels both desirable and a little risky if managed too fast. But we can enhance our readiness for solidarity, and bring mental wellbeing into a more viable pattern, as we wait for favourable conditions. Evelyn Woodward is helpful with this process, because she sees that interactions between different temperaments and inner gifts are what make community most alive. She offers a picture of interaction between three sorts of community member. "The poet, being a person of discernment, recognizes falsehood and injustice and brings them to attention, challenging stagnation whenever they see it." "What the prophet does is listen, and appropriate the poet's overarching vision, and out of it draw energy to criticize and re-orientate the community. He or she brings the dream for the future into dialogue with cultural movements in time." A pragmatist in the good sense is someone "open to receive the empathetic insights of the poets and the grief-filled challenges of the prophets, and to give them shape in planned action, with the sensitive skill of initiating and planning change." This interplay of gifts can even begin to install itself in the lives of those ready to contribute through online meetings with Zoom or the like. This last week with others on the committee of the Catholic Theological Association of Gt. Britain (around 12 people from Ireland, Scotland and England), had a fascinating hour of Zoom sharing about the challenge of continuing varied teaching and instruction prospects in religious matters (see website). With a good "host" person, empathy stayed alive and well.